Max Markson: From Bournemouth to the Big Time

Max Markson Celebrity PR Guru

Editorial by Nicholas Paul Griffin

Markson Sparks is Australia’s premier publicity, celebrity management and events organisation. Having started operations in 1982, the organisation is now regarded as one of the most innovative and successful publicity companies in Australia.

The man behind the organisation’s huge success is founder Max Markson, who is responsible for bringing a number of global personalities to Australia. The Australian Business Executive recently secured an exclusive interview with Mr Markson to find out where it all began.

Behind the Spotlight

Mr Markson grew up around his father’s profession, high-diving, where he spent a lot of time watching and attending the water shows his father put on. At five years old he began operating the spotlight in the show, and struggling to stay awake to watch it all.

“My Dad died when I was fifteen,” Mr Markson says. “I was away at boarding school, so I came home to live with my Mum in Bournemouth (UK), and I got a job as the spotlight operator [at a club] when I was sixteen, still going to school.”

From there he began working at a club in Bournemouth that had recently stopped putting on cabaret acts. Mr Markson filled this performance gap by working with a friend to hire BBC Radio 1 DJs and pop groups to come to the club and play.

At age 21, Mr Markson visited Australia for a holiday, and never returned. After nearly being forced out of the country three times because he didn’t have a visa, he soon started to make important contacts that would help him forward his career.

“A federal MP who I knew arranged it with a minister from immigration and I was allowed to stay in the country as a resident. At the time I did t-shirts for the federal election in 1977, for the Liberal and Labor parties.”

Soon after becoming a resident, Mr Markson began promoting products being brought in from an importer, and after that opened up his own nightclub, The Zoo, where he was regarded as “the head zookeeper.”

The Zoo saw a new personality appearing each week as guest DJ, a role filled by such stars as Brooke Shields, Evil Knievel, George Hamilton, and famous cricketers such as Geoffrey Boycott and Dennis Lillee.

“Then I went and worked at 2WS for two years as their promotions manager,” Mr Markson adds, “and then I started Markson Sparks in 1982, just doing publicity, which we still do today, for major corporations and companies.”

“Then we started managing celebrities and personalities, probably in 1990, and then we started doing events, and we’ve now done over 200 charity events and given over $40m to charity.”

As part of this charity work, Mr Markson has hosted tours for politicians such as President Bill Clinton, Rudi Giuliani and Tony Blair, as well as bringing entertainment figures in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Tyson and Pele.

Developing a Network

One of the most interesting aspects of running an organisation like Markson Sparks is the vast amount of networking that needs to be done in order to secure the level of clients it has acquired, something which appears to come as second nature to Mr Markson.

Mr Markson’s ethos is to read the papers, where everyday there is some knowledge to pick up that will help those networks to grow. In the 70s, Mr Markson used the old media to identify which personalities were in town on which dates and to approach them.

“In 1979, when I opened my discotheque and my nightclub, I knew during the cricket season that the cricketers would be in town. So I’d work out when they were in, I’d ring them up in advance and try and reach out to them.”

Before the advent of the internet, this reaching out needed to be done by phone or letter, but mostly involved contacting a personality’s manager to try and arrange a meeting and begin a relationship.

At the beginning of the 21st century of course, developing these networks is far easier and more convenient, thanks to the internet and advanced technology, avenues Mr Markson continues to embrace and use to his considerable advantage.

“If I meet someone,” he says, “I always put them in the Blackberry, and then in the iPhone. I’ve got about 6 or 7 thousand personal contacts, so I think that’s important. Nowadays, in terms of networking, social media is very important as well.”

Mr Markson admits to being an early adaptor to Twitter, which he began using 7 or 8 years ago, having now amassed over 21k followers. Likewise, he relies on a Facebook profile of around 4k and LinkedIn of 5k followers to further build awareness and make contacts.

“One of the things I do now, which again I think is important from a networking point of view, is I do an email out every few weeks – sometimes its weekly, sometimes its monthly – and I’ve got maybe 20k people on there.”

“And I promote whatever I’m doing and tell them what I’m doing, so that’s communicating with peopleso if you want to network properly, communicate, and stay in communication, stay in touch with people.”

The same can be said for any business that has an existing network of clients that need to be retained. Mr Markson believes the key is working hard to keep hold of the clients that are already signed up, since it costs much more to try and find new ones.

“80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients, right? So, I think keeping your business is important, and looking after them, and I always say I answer every phone call. I have no qualms about my phone number being out in public.”

Another big difference in the modern climate is the monetised status of celebrity, and Mr Markson admits that every appearance usually comes with a hefty fee attached. It is a far cry from the $500 paid to Brooke Shields in 1979 for her appearance at The Zoo.

“And how did I reach her?” Mr Markson says. “A guy called Gene Pierson was running a record label, Laser Records, and she was filming Blue Lagoon, and he wanted her to come in and record a record, and he said do you want to have her as guest DJ?”

The money provided helped to fund the record, and all parties went away happy, going to show that having a positive profile can make it easier to meet contacts. Mr Markson works on the belief that anybody is accessible if the right level of commitment to finding them is given.

In the internet age, personalities are even more accessible, and as Mr Markson points out, just looking online can often open up many opportunities to find them. All personalities have some kind of online presence, and this is the easiest way to reach out to them.

“For example, Barack Obama, who lives at the White House,” Mr Markson explains. “David Cameron’s the Prime Minister of England, he lives at number 10 Downing Street… you know, it isn’t hard. Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway – you’ll find him, just look online!”

Taking Risks

An inevitable part of the PR business is putting money up front and taking risks on bringing potentially unknown qualities to a country. For every major personality that is booked, there will be some who are not guaranteed to draw the same kind of crowd.

“I think you’ve got to have a gut instinct about something,” Mr Markson says. “If you’re going to bring over someone who hasn’t been here before, that’s a good thing because it means it’s the first time they’ve been over here, so it lessens the risk.”

If certain appearances are going to cost a lot of money, then the risk needs to be offset by further work – selling tickets, getting sponsorship, finding people to get involved to spread the risk a little wider. For Mr Markson it is the same as any other business proposition.

A good example is the Soundwave rock festival, which was cancelled this year after nearly a decade of life, leaving behind significant ticketing issues. Mr Markson has worked with such festivals in the past, and knows how difficult the process can prove to be.

“The ticket agents don’t put anything up. The ticket agents collect the money and hold it until after the show’s done. Once the show’s done, then they pay the money to the promotor. There’s some that don’t do that, and they just give the money straight to the promotor.”

This last method can cause significant problems, as the ticketing agencies don’t have the money anymore, putting the whole enterprise at risk of falling victim to cancellation issues such as experienced by Soundwave music festival.

Mr Markson admits that paying a speaker or guest upfront is the only way to ensure success, and this is what he’s always done. All other arrangements have proven unsustainable, meaning parting with a large amount of money up front is par for the course.

“If it’s eight months away, I might give them 50% on signing the contract, and the balance a month before they come. But if I was going to go to another country I wouldn’t get on the plane and go without having the money in my bank account, why would you?”

This is a fate that has befallen many promoters in the past, having announced an appearance for a certain personality, only for that appearance not to become a reality because the artist has yet to be paid.

“You pay them, they’ll come,” Mr Markson says. “All those pop concerts where they say, ‘oh they’re not coming now’, it’s not because of the artists, it’s because the promoter hasn’t put the money down.”

One of the most important elements of Markson Sparks’ business is making sure there is good media attention surrounding an event. Mr Markson insists the key to this is content, ensuring there is enough intrigue to get the media interested.

“If you’ve got a good story, the media always wants it. When I look back at my career, and it’s still going, my relationship with the media was to give them the stories, just keep feeding the stories to them.”

Although a press release for an event may reach a thousand people, Mr Markson believes the key is to pick up the phone to half a dozen select people and place the story wherever you want it to be placed.

Although much of his work is in events and management, Mr Markson’s main business is publicity, which creates about 80% of his income. This will involve sitting down with the client, writing a proposal and setting the plan for an event, and then finally executing it.

“The first thing I do is pick up the phone and start placing stories with journalists. You have to do that. It’s not something that I invented. Steve Jobs was doing it with Apple; when he’d launch a new project, he’d ring up Time or Newsweek and give them an exclusive story.”

In addition to handling large tours for high-profile personalities, Mr Markson is perfectly aware of the benefit of working with smaller organisations, highlighted by his current project handling PR for Gourmet Life, a medium-sized grocery store in Edgecliff.

“That’s what I do all day long,” he explains. “I work on the start up of a new app, or if it’s a new company that’s about to explode on the stock exchange, I’ll do PR for them, for their new products that are coming out.”

Mr Markson looks as far back as when he helped first launch Reebok in Australia, which began as a small company selling trainers, and has since grown to such a significant size as to have signed a huge deal with the UFC.

“[Reebok] was just two guys working out of a lounge room,” Mr Markson explains, “and we launched it. For the first three years there was no ad agency, it was just me doing publicity to get the brand name.”

Mr Markson believes there are three key points to business success: persistence, enthusiasm and focus. With these three attributes, any potential challenge can be overcome. “If you can do that,” he says, “you’ll get through the ups and downs of business and of life.”

A Story to Tell

In his years running Markson Sparks, Mr Markson has been instrumental in arranging for some well known names to visit Australia. Perhaps the biggest of these was President Bill Clinton, who Mr Markson remembers as being “fantastic”.

“That was a risk,” he says of the first Clinton tour. “But I made money from it, and I made a lot of money for charity as well. In 2001, the first event was the 8th of September and we cleared $1.2m for the children’s hospital at Westmead, which was fantastic.”

President Clinton returned in February 2002, touring hospitals and charities in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Once again this raised a lot of money, making it an extremely worthwhile risk for Mr Markson to take.

The other side of the business is bringing over top celebrities, sometimes done on behalf of a Markson Sparks client, as in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came over to do a tour, coordinated and executed by Mr Markson.

One of the benefits of these celebrity tours for Mr Markson is the wealth of stories he has to tell about some very famous names, and he regales us with the memory of “one of the best nights of my life doing karaoke with President Clinton.”

Mr Markson has no problem remembering the numbers the two performed together that night, before going on to fondly recall the time he trained with Schwarzenegger, as well as sharing a story about Tony Blair reminiscing about meeting Fidel Castro.

Mr Markson tells of how interesting it has been to spend time with some of the most influential people of our time, learning a bit more about them and hearing them speak of their lives, and the humility so many of them display.

“I hosted Nelson Mandela in 2000, and we did two events in two days, and at the dinner event he came on and spoke and we had in the audience Prime Ministers Fraser, Whitlam, Hawke, and there was the Premier at the time, Bob Carr.”

In his speech, Mandela said that he would normally only speak for ten minutes, adding that the people in the room were so important that he would stay a little longer, demonstrating the great humility he is often remembered for.

“The other one who’s that humble is Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first man to climb Everest. I did about half a dozen events with him, and I remember on the 50th anniversary of when he climbed Everest, we did four events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.”

Mr Hillary told the story of his return from Nepal, where he had recently been hospitalised. On his return to Auckland, he received a letter from a man in Des Moines, Iowa, saying that he was pleased to hear of Hillary’s sickness, as he thought he had died years earlier.

Mr Markson recounts these tales with the warm joy of memory running through his words, laughing out loud at recollections of having shared great moments with some truly great people, clearly deriving significant pleasure from his many years of work.